“The Victoria Collection” = The Call of the Beloved; Devotion to Our Lady; Requiem 1605; The Mystery of the Cross – The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro 16088 (1 SACD + 3 CDs), 4+ hours [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
This is another set from Coro containing recordings from the sterling catalog of the Sixteen, one of the finest ensembles of its type with a long history of incredible performances almost all documented on silver disc. We have not received these before now, so again, as in my review of the Italian Collection elsewhere in these pages, I will take a peek at all of them.
This time the focus is not on a group of composers delineated by country, but on one: Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), considered by many the greatest of all Renaissance composers, and definitely the greatest Spanish representative of the time, perhaps of all time. If I can quote from a previous review of mine about this wonderful composer, “Here we find musical perfection perhaps to remain unknown until Mozart: clarity of line, consideration for the abilities of the singers, perfectly matched harmonies that fall well for the voice, and a sense of devotion manifested in music which reflects a view of life that is both beautiful and sacred. He was an organist, singer, and priest, sometimes referred to as the ‘Spanish Palestrina’ for his contributions to counter-reformation music. Victoria was given extreme leeway in ability to travel and study for a priest, and his reputation was pristine in life and death. Musically he is almost without peer among his contemporaries.”
My only change to the above is that he might be without peer. Well, that’s going too far, but his music is that good, and it’s nice to have this thorough collection in one place—and at a good price—to prove the point.
Devotion to our Lady, which is a hallmark of traditional Spanish piety, is so-titled because all of these pieces are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a series of antiphons, motets, and mostly the eight-voice double choir Missa Salve and the antiphon on which it is based. There are four Marian antiphons which Victoria used as the basis for subsequent masses, yet only three were completed before his death, and among these he employs parody to rework the antiphons themselves into the mass, and also cross-pollinates the pieces among each other, reworking much and borrowing from all three. This music is of the highest order, emphasizing the more controlled post-Trent dictates of style (which he thoroughly mastered during his 20 years spent in Rome) but also allowing an inherent passion and emotional drama to flow in these pieces, something so innate to his own personality and background that it could hardly be otherwise, and one of the marks of his popularity. Some of the pieces in this collection are discreetly accompanied by organ and bajon, and each is a wonderful example of the composer’s best effort, sung to perfection by Christopher’s sterling ensemble.
The Mystery of the Cross, as might be expected, zeroes in on the “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, traditionally sung in the Western Church across the span of three days, Holy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The Sixteen offers us all three complete, and the results are very nice. The music is much more subdued and chordal than the polyphonic splendors of Victoria’s other music, but even here he knows how to affect our emotions in settings that are simple—comparatively—but very much attuned to the texts themselves, highly pathos-laden but also churchly and contained, exploring these liturgical and biblical texts in terms of churchly appreciation and not histrionics. These subtle shadings of anguish and hope are interspersed with two hymns, Pange Lingua from the feast of Corpus Christi (but also used during Holy week) and Vexilla Regis, a text praising the cross.
Victoria’s greatest work is also his last, the Requiem of 1605, and we can be grateful that of these four discs this is the one to be issued on SACD. The sound is, needless, to say, a large cut above the other three, though they are each very good, but this one, spacious and gloriously rich in its breadth, is captured to perfection at the church of St. Silas the Martyr in London.
The piece itself is a huge landmark, designating the end of the Renaissance as well as the end of Spain’s golden era, and its vast expressiveness, ranging from the most affectionate moments to those of supreme and vivid emotional content, make a fitting summation to one of the most remarkable ages in the history of music, and truly one of the most remarkable composers. The Sixteen have had this work in their repertory for a long time, but they waited until 2005 to release it.
The other works on this disc are motets, some from rather early on (age 24) to general midlife (around 40), are reflective of the high devotion to the Virgin Mary, and even the two from the Song of Songs are directly related to her. Victoria never writes music of anything less than exquisite delicacy and love when identifying Mary, and these pieces—the Ave Marias alone for five and eight voices respectively—are complex and polyphonically perfect.
Lastly, the oldest of the set (2002) and also the first in sequence of the Sixteen’s Victoria series, The Call of the Beloved, is a reference to the end of the composer’s early Roman sojourn and his desire to return to his beloved Spain, in order to live a life of contemplation “as befits a priest” as he said. In 1585 Philip II appointed him chaplain to the Dowager Empress Maria, his sister, and Victoria remained Maestro and organist of a convent in Madrid until his death. Within just a few years the 12-voice triple choir Missa Laetatus sum appeared, a beautiful work using both homophonic writing and imitative polyphony. The triple choir Magnificat Sexti toni shares some of the music with the psalm on which the mass is based. The other works are hymns and motets, smaller in nature but elegantly refined and highly expressive. This varied program makes a great kick-off to the whole series, but a moot point since you can have the whole thing at once.
A lot of these recordings were originally from the now-defunct and desperately missed Collins Classics label, obtained by Coro, though they continue to release a host of new recordings by the Sixteen also. These could serve as your only Victoria recordings if you are on a budget, a bedrock of any worthy early music collection. But do hear this composer if you don’t know him—the rewards are great.
“Beloved” – Motet Laetatus sum; Missa Laetatus sum; Veni creator spiritus; Vadam et circuibo; Vedi speciosam; Ad caenam Agni; Magnificat Sexti toni
“Devotion” – Salve Regina; Missa Salve; Ave maris stella; Alma redemptoris Mater; Regain caeli lactare; Ave Maria; Magnificat
“Requiem 1605” – Salve Regina; Ave Maria caelorum; Nigra sum; Quam pulchri sunt; Trahe me post te; Ave Regina Caelorum
“Mystery” – Lamentations for Maundy Thursday; Lamentations for Good Friday; Lamentations for Holy Saturday